NineSigma’s Grand Challenges Move the Needle on Solving the World’s Most Complex Issues

What makes a Grand Challenge grand? Consider the complexities of curing breast cancer, purging greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, launching civilian spacecraft, or eradicating the devastating AIDS pandemic. These are the kinds of problems that require an amplified approach to open innovation, or “connecting with the world” to find new solutions. Combining this approach with public messaging, marketing and social networking is the hallmark of a Grand Challenge, according to NineSigma, the leading innovation partner to organizations worldwide.

“If you think of Challenges as geeky, pimply, brainiacs, then Grand Challenges are their star-quality, popular cousins. Grand Challenges want the attention, announcing themselves to the broad public,” said Denys Resnick, Vice President of Strategic Programs, NineSigma.

Often associated with eye-popping cash awards, Grand Challenges galvanize individuals to solve important problems and literally change the world. Working together, companies and/or nonprofit organizations conduct marketing and public relations campaigns to generate excitement and inspire new solution providers to come forward. They also bring together outside panels of judges to decide on the prize winners, and organize award ceremonies, all building toward a crescendo to keep every Grand Challenge front and center.

An example is General Electric’s Healthymagination program for fighting breast cancer, offering a total of $100 million in prize money for novel solutions. NineSigma amplified GE’s message by expanding the search for solutions to target relevant technical communities. The Challenge generated more than 500 proposals from 40 countries, and GE selected five innovation winners who each received a $100,000 seed award in addition to support through mentorships and access to GE researchers and industry thought leaders.  

Behind the headlines, glitz and glamour of Grand Challenges are several best practices.  For instance, each challenge should include separate calls to action that motivate both laypeople and technical experts to respond. The challenges themselves, often issued as Requests for Proposals (RFPs), must be clear, precise and achievable within a limited timeframe. This was the case when NineSigma worked with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) to identify new approaches for an effective HIV vaccine. NineSigma employed a unique approach, focusing the RFP on solving the challenge of protein stabilization, considered key to “cracking the code,” rather than simply calling for ideas for vaccine improvements.

Sponsors of Grand Challenges should pay special attention to the IT platform, which is the command center where all aspects of a Grand Challenge converge. Effective IT platforms bring together social media capabilities, voting, and proposal submission, along with forums for communication.

For other best practices for executing Grand Challenges, please download a new NineSigma Point of View paper at:

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